China is now widely expected to overtake the United States and become the world’s largest film market in a few years. However, as a Chinese film producer, the news gives me more cause for concern that jubilation.
According to the latest industry figures, China’s national box office income topped 21.5 billion yuan (HK$27 billion) last year, or US$3.5 billion. This makes China the world’s second-largest film market after the US, with an estimated total box office revenue of US$10.9 billion.
Based on the rapid growth of the Chinese market and the almost stagnant US market, many analysts have predicted that China would close the gap within a few years.
However, when we take a closer look, the driving force behind China’s phenomenal market growth has not been Chinese movies alone. China has also become the biggest market for Hollywood blockbusters outside of the US.
Even in 2013, which saw the best performance in history of domestically produced movies, foreign titles (almost exclusively Hollywood blockbusters) still accounted for more than 40 per cent of the box office income.
Even more interesting, many movies that tanked in the US and international markets performed exceptionally well in China – so much that China has almost become a sure-fire antidote to many flims that are declared US box-office poisons.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government appears to still be fighting a losing war in resisting Hollywood, by imposing protectionist measures such as import quotas and time blocks like designating months when only domestic movies can be released.
Chinese filmmakers have also been working hard at producing great movies to compete with Hollywood on home turf. But the market grows at a much higher rate than the industry, creating a huge shortage of qualified filmmakers, writers, directors and actors.
To make up for this gap, Chinese film companies and funds have been trying to “buy” Hollywood.
They have offered partial financing to Hollywood films in exchange for embedding Chinese elements in their productions, but only to find those "Chinese" scenes almost all cut out in the versions for global release.
They have invested in US cinema chains and production companies, only to discover that hot-selling films are still primarily Hollywood productions.
Pressed between high hopes and hard realities, what are Chinese film producers to do? If my own experience working across barriers between the Chinese and US film industries has taught me anything, I would say follow the market and play our best hand, instead of forcing something that isn’t ready.
For one thing, we should strive to serve the domestic market. The content can be localised, but the way the films are made and the stories told are universal. Even for movies catering only to the Chinese market, talents can be hired from all over the world, as long as the core team (producers, writers and directors) knows the Chinese audience well.
As for winning a bigger, international audience with "Chinese elements", we shouldn't place much hope on finding existing stories with Chinese elements in Hollywood. But we can create them from scratch.
The success of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, written and produced in the US, is a perfect example of how a Chinese-themed movie can be an international hit, if made right.
Instead of trying to artificially plant Chinese elements into the plot, we should focus on getting more Chinese talents and financing behind international successes.
Many European directors and producers in recent years have achieved considerable success by making English-language films with Hollywood stars. After establishing themselves in their own countries, they are now bringing new blood to Hollywood films. One perfect example is the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose 2011 crime drama Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, won him the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Alina Y. Qiu is a Chinese film producer who has achieved success in bringing together Chinese and international filmmakers and financing behind such works as Inseparable (2012), starring Kevin Spacey and Daniel Wu. She is the only Chinese selected to the 6th Europe/Asia Producer Workshop by the Udine Far East and Busan film festivals.